“The Wizard of Oz is a film with very great power… And it’s to be expected that it has stayed with us for the past several years and that we find its echoes in our films for such a long time after. The Wizard of Oz is like a dream and it has immense emotional power,” David Lynch once said. “There’s a certain amount of fear in that picture, as well as things to dream about. So it seems truthful in some way.”
Indeed, from the overt references (Wild at Heart) to the more subtextual (see: every other David Lynch movie), Victor Fleming’s 1939 landmark has been a constant wellspring of influence for the legendary director. Yet even with such source of inspiration, Lynch’s films play as singular creations, every frame infused with a thrillingly unique voice. With his new essay documentary, Alexandre O. Philippe entertainingly explores the vast range of connections between Lynch and Oz through the perspectives of Karyn Kusama, John Waters, David Lowery, Rodney Ascher, Amy Nicholson, and Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead.
Ahead of the film’s release beginning this Friday at the IFC Center, I spoke with Philippe about the process of crafting each section, how it’s a futile effort to unpack the mysteries of Lynch’s enigmatic work, exploring Twin Peaks: The Return, expanding the scope of the documentary, and rewatching the director’s work.
The Film Stage: I’m curious about the authorship each participant had over their section. What was the process for recording their audio? Did they have any say in the video clips that would appear?
Alexandre O. Philippe: Yeah, it was actually a multi-step process, to be honest. This is a film that originated in the very early days of the pandemic, basically March 2020. The first step was to find people who were really willing to go down this particular rabbit hole with me. Essentially the first step was what I call a “jazz interview.” I got them on the phone and recorded very low-quality, just recording on my iPhone. And I picked their brain for about 90 minutes to about three-and-a-half hours––depending on who you’re talking to, what you’re talking about. And it’s really fishing for sort of a thesis from them. So we went in all kinds of directions, and when I felt that I had enough material there for their chapter, then we hung up. I transcribed the interviews, built a voiceover script, and sent out to them for approval revisions. We usually went back and forth a few times. They deleted stuff, they did stuff, I deleted stuff, I did stuff. And then when we were completely comfortable with that process, I sent them to a recording studio to rerecord their voiceover. And that’s what you have in the film.
As far as the visual world: all the clips and everything that’s involved in the film, they had no control over that. That’s David Lawrence, who edited the film. We worked very hard on every single moment. And that’s the process of building the script. You also really very much have to think in terms of: how am I going to tell the story visually? So the clip process really starts at the scripting stage.
Unlike some of the other films and directors you’ve explored, I feel like David Lynch is the rare kind of director where you want to keep things almost mysterious, as he certainly does. He is not over-explaining things. On your end, was there any kind of restraint to try not over-analyzing certain elements of his filmography? Did you cut back on anything you’d rather keep as a mystery?
Well, for me, this is certainly not a film that is designed to explain anything. I think the moment you set out to say, “I’m going to explain David Lynch or crack the code of David Lynch,” you’re going to fail. There’s nothing to crack. There’s nothing to resolve, and I think that’s true of the creative process in general. This is a film about the mysteries of the creative process. And I think, if anything, it’s a different lens to look at Lynch’s films through, and to look at The Wizard of Oz through. For me, the goal of this film is to delve into the mystery, the mysteries of influence and inspiration, and to open more doors, more windows into those mysteries and hopefully have people go through that as well. I think certainly the film makes the case that there’s a lot of strong connections, undeniable connections. Some of them are conscious and others are not. And I think that’s kind of the beauty of it. But, beyond that, I think the cinema of David Lynch is always going to be mysterious, and that’s part of the joy of it.
Definitely. One of the things that I was really struck by watching this, it’s among the first high-level visual analyses of Twin Peaks season 3. It was such a monumental viewing experience and there’s been a lot written about it, but not so much diving into certain elements that you do here from a visual standpoint. What was your experience watching that? And was there a certain thrill breaking new ground in some ways about analyzing that project?
It’s just extraordinary. I think it’s one of his greatest works. It really struck me, very powerfully, how Oz-ian it really is. There are so many elements of it that harken back to The Wizard of Oz. To be honest, even that final moment––and I know it’s not something I talk about in the film––but when they’re in our world, they are bringing Laura Palmer to the house and you have this woman who apparently lives there in real life. She opens the door and she talks to her husband that we never see. He’s off-screen and he’s behind the curtain. [Laughs] It’s just one of those moments: I’ve always loved it because I think there’s something really beautiful about that.
Was that conscious? Not conscious? It doesn’t matter at the end of the day, because I think the journey is very much Oz-like. There are certainly conscious references; when Cooper wakes up in the hospital bed and he’s surrounded by people, which is something that Lynch does several times. That has to be conscious. All those things are very clear markers. But beyond that, who knows. I never thought of it that this is one of the first analyzes of [Twin Peaks season 3]. I don’t really ever look at it that way. It’s not about competition. It’s really about the joy of picking the brains of people that I love and admire and who are not just great filmmakers or film geeks or film critics, but people who think about film in different ways. And I think to be able to have those conversations with them, to me, is always mind-opening and mind-expanding, and that’s the fun of it.
One of the elements I really love is how you expand beyond its title. I love the section where it’s discussing these directorial motifs many use––including Terrence Malick, Abbas Kiarostami, Jane Campion, and Wong Kar-wai. It opens up your mind so much about how you could have a film about any director in the world, really. How did you come up with that sequence?
Yeah, I know. I mean, that to me is ultimately the thesis of the whole film. Even though the film is about David Lynch and The Wizard of Oz, it’s fundamentally a film about the mysteries of influence and inspiration and the creative process. So I really was very attracted to this idea of building a montage that speaks to the fact that it’s not just Lynch and Oz. Every filmmaker out there, every artist, when you grow up and you’re moved by something or something leaves an impression on you––whether it’s another film or a work of art or an event or trauma––whatever the case may be, that when you become an artist, you regurgitate that. You keep going back to that well and filling it up again and again in your work, no matter how conscious you are of it or not. And that is not a reductive thing. It’s a beautiful thing. It was important to build up to this particular montage and obviously to have as much diversity as possible. But yeah, that took a lot of work and I think it’s a fitting ending to Lynch/Oz.
I loved David Lowery’s section and how he discusses the hidden, terrifying things in films that he would revisit over and over again. That feels a bit synonymous with a lot of your work, where you’re really taking something that someone might know at face value and then diving into it and changing the way you see it. Can you talk about crafting that section?
Yeah. I’ve known David for a while and this wasn’t the first time that I got to interview him. I wouldn’t say “frequently,” but every now and then we’ll just touch base and text or email. I’m a big fan of what he does and he’s been very kind to watch my work over the years. I think we’re very aligned in a lot of his ideas, but I think his chapter is really meaningful. He truly brings it home, to use an Oz pun. It’s the chapter that sort of takes it full-circle. One of the things I really appreciate about it––in fact, what I really like about all the chapter––is that these are not just people who are talking about film as an art form, which in and of itself is already sort of fascinating and would be fascinating enough.
But they start bringing elements of their childhood or personal experiences in life and connecting those to the act of watching films. David Lowery talks about growing up watching The Wizard of Oz in black-and-white, and then eventually watching it in color, and how that sort of changes his perception of it. Karyn Kusama talks about being in New York City and being a waitress and serving pancakes to David Lynch with lots of maple syrup. John Waters talks about growing up watching The Wizard of Oz and the clear influence on his own work.
To me, getting to the sort of personal aspect is where the juice is, if you will. That’s where the beauty of making a film is. That’s what it’s about, because once you start tapping into the personal––the scares, the trauma, the wonder––these handful of films that have had such a profound impact or influence on the filmmakers, that’s where you get to the heart of why they also are filmmakers now. So even though this is about Lynch and Oz, it’s also about that. They’re little sort of mini-portraits of these filmmakers as well.
I was curious if Lynch is aware of the film, and if he’s seen it.
He was the first one I reached out to. I knew he was not going to want to participate, and I honestly feel like it’s probably better this way. We all know he doesn’t really like to talk about his work, but he was very nice about it. His response was, “Thank you, but I need to keep my eye on the donut.” Whatever that means. [Laughs] It’s a very typical Lynchian response. But he’s aware of it. In fact, we invited him to the world premiere at Tribeca and he didn’t come. And again: I’m not surprised. I mean, I’ve known from Jon Nguyen, who co-directed The Art Life, and [Lynch] participated, obviously, in that film. But he didn’t show up to to the premiere in Venice. And so there’s certainly no big expectations.
But we did show the film with a screening at the Coronado Island Film Festival, and his sister Martha lives there. And so she came; she actually introduced the film. She watched it there for the first time, and came up to me afterwards. We had a long conversation. She loved it. And she actually told me, she said, “Yeah, I mean, David growing up was really quite obsessed with The Wizard of Oz.” So it was really nice to hear from her. And she said she was going to tell him about the film. So I don’t know if he’s seen it. Certainly, if he reaches out and is curious I’d of course be delighted to send him a link. But he has not reached out at this point. And I don’t want to keep bugging him, you know?
Of course. There’s a very playful element to your film. I recall one line where it’s talking about how Lynch is not just regurgitating Wizard of Oz. And then you see evil Cooper, like, puking. There’s this light touch throughout, which makes it an entertaining watch. Can you talk about capturing that tone?
Yeah, well, that’s the joy of the process when you’re working with so many, many, many film clips––and I have to give a lot of kudos to David Lawrence again, my editor on this, because we literally auditioned a number of clips for every single moment. Every single moment has to land and every single clip has to work, oftentimes not just on an A-B level, but on multiple levels. Anytime you have an opportunity to use a clip and give it a little bit of humor as well, or to make them breathe as sort of dialogue between the clips. We have a couple of really pretty funny split-screens. I think it’s in chapter five, with Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson, where you have these scenes of Lula and Sailor [from Wild at Heart] just having wild sex and then a split-screen with Dorothy looking completely shocked, which usually gets a laugh in the theater.
We have these great moments also between Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life, where the scarecrow is dancing and then he’s got Jimmy Stewart, dancing, falling into the pool. Of course, that’s part of the joy is to find these echoes. These moments that make you wonder, again, how certain films may have impacted other films––to go beyond just Lynch and Oz to start really delving into the mirror effect of cinema history and how movies lead to other movies, to other movies, to other movies.
You probably spent much time rewatching Lynch’s films, and I was wondering if one stood out, where your perception shifted the more you watched it? I had this feeling last year revisiting the new restoration of Lost Highway, where it felt like a different movie from the one I saw 15 years ago.
I think every time you rewatch a David Lynch film you usually have a new experience. Mulholland Dr. is one of the films that I’ve definitely watched the most. I think I’ve seen it probably more than 70 times. It’s up there for me with Blade Runner and Vertigo. Those are the films that I’ve watched obsessively and will continue to watch obsessively. And every single time you have new discoveries. I think, as far as this particular project, it’s really interesting to start rewatching the body of work of David Lynch, but this time specifically look through the Oz-ian lens and where are the possible connections. So every time you do something like this you obviously start making discoveries and I don’t know if there was a particular film [where my perception changed].
I think exploring Mulholland Dr. with Karyn Kusama, I think, was different. She always had such an incredible perspective; she always brings so much depth and insight. I just absolutely love to work with her. She’s amazing. She’s actually going to be in one of our next docs again because she’s just too great. I feel like every time I sit down with her and talk about my favorite films, I’m going to walk out of the conversation having gained so much insight, such a new, fresh perspective on things––that’s just the way she is.
I don’t know if there was a particular film, but I think that when we started going down the rabbit hole, I was surprised by the amount of discoveries that we made. It goes a lot deeper, too. The point of the exercise was not to include every possible reference or echo from The Wizard of Oz and David Lynch’s films, because we left many out. It was really remarkable to realize: wow, you can absolutely look at his entire body of work and you can find these motifs, you can find these totems, and they’re there from his early, early, short films all the way to Twin Peaks: The Return.
Lynch/Oz opens on June 2 at IFC Center and will expand.